Yesterday was an exciting one for me. As part of my campus job writing what amounts to AP copy, I got to interview Reverend John Thomas, general minister of the United Church of Christ, before he spoke to the Yale community. He titled his speech “The Future of the Prophetic Voice in the Ecumenical Church.” Rev. Thomas amended this title to read “After Seven Years,” based on a letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote entitled “After Ten Years.”
Bonhoeffer wrote the letter in December
1842 1942 to his co-conspirators trying to put an end to war and to overturn Hitler. Rev. Thomas said that the letter was also Bonhoeffer’s attempt to speak to himself.” He was in a place of extremity, dealing with the deaths of the Jews he was trying to save and the deaths of his former students who were being sent to die on the Western Front. And above all, Bonhoeffer was dealing with a church that “had grown silent or complicit in what was going on.” Bonhoeffer said, “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds. . . . Are we still of any use?”
Rev. Thomas put the same question to his audience, except placed it in the context of the past seven years of the Bush administration. People in this country have been submitted to “years of intimidation, years of masterful manipulation,” and Rev. Thomas wondered, “What would it take to reinvigorate the prophetic voice in mainline Protestant churches?”
Although Rev. Thomas never specifically defined what he meant by “prophetic voice,” it seemed clear to me at least that he meant a voice of critique for unjust institutions that should be the right of the Christian Church.
He proposed five potential ways to revivify this struggling prophetic voice: 1) Cultivating a “deeper, richer sense of imagination.” For Rev. Thomas this involves deeper “biblical reflection,” “reclaiming power of the apocalyptic” language that has been co-opted by public authorities, and “reclaim[ing] in ritual more profound imagination,” which rituals include baptism and Eucharist. 2) Courage and avoiding the “seduction of respectability” in religion. 3) Creativity and whimsy in words and acts of resistance to idolatry (political). 4) Companionship with new allies, Christian and non, willing to consider the “implications of the love of God . . . in the real world.” An ecumenical spirit. 5) And “renew the public voice of theology in our time,” meaning critiques by spiritual leaders in the public arena.
Now, I am not sure if this kind of conversation about prophecy and ecumenism is even possible in the LDS church. But I think we are often content to let prophecy come to us in a very passive way. There are many forms of prophecy I think, official and unofficial (what Mormons would consider to be unofficial prophecies by artists, activists, politicians, and spiritual leaders of other religious traditions). I do think that only God’s chosen and ordained servants can make official pronouncements for the whole LDS church, but I also think our definition of prophecy could be expanded to include more the everyday lives of members and their ideas and applications of official church pronouncements. And I also think we need to consider other prophetic voices that might not necessarily be part of our own tradition.
So, are Reverend Thomas’s criteria for an ecumenical prophetic voice valid in the LDS tradition, where prophecy is designated to a specific set of individuals? How do we define prophecy and prophets (either historically or contemporarily)? Is there room for a broader definition than the one we currently have? How can Mormons join with leaders of other faith traditions to speak out against the injustice that abounds in the world? When should church leaders address political issues? Is this even a conversation we are able to have in Mormonism?